The confluence

Updated 17 Oct 2020

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Supporters of Pakistan Democratic Movement, an alliance of political opposition parties, waves signs as they listen to their leaders during an anti-government protest rally in Gujranwala on October 16. — Reuters
Supporters of Pakistan Democratic Movement, an alliance of political opposition parties, waves signs as they listen to their leaders during an anti-government protest rally in Gujranwala on October 16. — Reuters

GUJRANWALA: This is a rare sight which will take time to sink in. The green of the PML-N brushes flirtatiously against the tri-colour of the one-time rival, the PPP — the old saying about how love and hatred are two sides to the same sentiment coming true in this Sha­rif stronghold in times of mutual necessity. Not to be left behind in any way, the JUI-F’s flag rivals the others in its tenacity and verve, black and white, like Mau­lana Fazlur Rehman’s politics of late.

At 6pm on the rally day, entering the Jinnah Stadium is quite a challenge. The people are coming in gushes, and a pair of professionals merely there to cover the event rather than to participate in it stands little chance against the passionate party cadres. It takes us a whole 15 minutes to find a safe opening.

The scenes inside are quite hectic, difficult to draw a parallel with any of the PML-N rallies in memory, this being dubbed as essentially a Sharif power show in a city from where they occupy all the assembly seats. If you must, you can perhaps compare it with certain reservations and exceptions with a PTI public meeting of recent years, considering the liveliness as opposed to the so called patwari-sponsored attempts at public wooing by the Kings of Raiwind in the past and given the slogans, not to ignore ‘DJ Butt’ emblazoned above the stage. It is nice to know that the place harbours other, neutral souls out to do simply a job.

There was no women’s participation in the fun activities at the jalsa – that is where the reservations in the comparison come in and that is where a PML-N or a JUI-F get-together can never be likened to a PTI one. There was a women’s section inside the stadium, overcrowded, but it was no match to the energetic boisterous girls’ groups that would be there at the PTI rallies.

At the venue of political romancing between rivals of yore, participants say they are there because of inflation

There was a species called the PML-N youth on display, coinciding, of course, with the next-generation leader Maryam Nawaz’s first great expedition for power. These youngsters were dressed in T-shirts bearing images of their party leaders – read Sharif family members – with no marks to suggest that they have been worn through any recent bouts at the Siri-Paya restaurant. The youngsters had plenty of energy to shake to the tune of the music every now and then.

It was rather uncertain whether the PPP workers will be there at the venue. It was generally said either with a smirk or a sigh that the kind had gone extinct in Punjab, and even in the best of scenarios, it was believed only a few would be there at the public meeting. In that sense the PPP was the surprise package in Gujranwala, but the antics its workers resorted to inside the stadium were customary. The air frequently reverberated with chants of “Jeay Bhutto” and even in the odd mix, the jiyalas stood out for their flair for never falling out with the beat.

The PML-N and PPP were well supported by JUI-F, and workers aligned with Aftab Sherpao and Akhtar Mengal but the organisers mostly played PML-N, PPP and JUI-F’s party songs.

At this inaugural public meeting of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), the workers did seem to be making an extra effort to exhibit positivity and in the true spirit of bonhomie some did manage to cross the barrier and dance to the motivational songs other than their own party’s.

Bonhomie, unfortunately, also meant that all precautions against Covid-19 were ignored. There were no masks, there being no room for social distancing in times of political romancing between opposition parties that cannot help but try and dislodge the incumbent. It was both sad and comical to watch the policemen insisting that people enter the stadium via the so called senitising gates that were fitted with sprinklers spraying some kind of miracle water on those who walked through.

The stadium was full by 7pm while the three main leaders of recently-formed PDM — Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Maryam Nawaz and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari — were still some distance away from reaching the venue. Reports said they were leading big rallies.

Those who arrived for the jalsa from outside Gujranwala said reaching the destination was not an easy task. People coming from Lahore or other districts of Punjab faced barricades in the form of containers blocking Chann Da Qila Road, Sialkot Bypass, Gujranwala Overhead Bridge and all city roads linking to the stadium.

Once entering the city taking a detour one had to walk for a few kilometres to get to the venue.

Police were present in good numbers but they didn’t try to stop anyone taking de route to reach the venue.

Dawn spoke to many participants belonging to the mainstream opposition parties — PMLN, PPP and JUI-F. The gist of their comments was that they were out basically to vent their anger against one person — Imran Khan — for ‘unprecedented’ inflation, price hike and joblessness that they said had made their lives miserable.

When asked them about the narrative of the opposition, especially PML-N, about giving respect to the vote, they said this issue ranked after ‘menhgai’ (inflation) in their book. “Honestly if you ask me why have I come here... I haven’t come here for Nawaz Sharif – who nonetheless is my leader. (I have come here) for my own catharsis. Our lives have become miserable because of this menhgai and I blame Imran Khan for this who only has sold this nation pipedreams,” Bilal Chaudhry, a resident of Gujranwala told Dawn.

Allauddin, a PPP supporter who came from Mianwali said: “I would like to ask Imran Khan to tell me how do I make the budget for my family – husband, wife and five children – while his government imposed unprecedented menhgai on us.” A schoolteacher, Allauddin said he was here at the rally “because the electricity bills hurts”.

Published in Dawn, October 17th, 2020